16 January 2014

Learning from my Little One

It has come to my attention that, despite loads and loads of practice, I am not a very good flyer.

It's not that I'm afraid of flying. I used to be, right after September 11, when everything seemed so tenuous: I developed a strong conviction that if I didn't stay vigilant the whole time we were aloft, the laws of physics would cease to apply to the airplane and we would just drop out of the sky. I've gotten over that. I actually quite enjoy the "whee, we're up in the air and on our way!" part of flying.

I'm just absolutely sure that everything else is going to go wrong. Our flight will be delayed for hours, or will pull out from the gate and then sit on the runway for the length of a Peter Jackson movie. (This has happened to me before.) I will discover after the Fasten Seatbelt sign has been turned off that my seat, which in the "fully upright" position pushes me ever so slightly forward, cannot be reclined even into an actually upright position, and I'm just going to have to stay kind of doubled over for the entire seven hours to Boston. (Ditto.) The flight will go swimmingly and we will land on time, only to find chaos at our destination and watch as plane after plane takes off, while the one parked at the our gate remains stubbornly in place. (Yup, that too. Notice a theme here?) We will be two hours into a seven-hour flight and my kid will empty the contents of her stomach all over me. (This actually happened in a restaurant, where we could leave quickly and race home to the washing machine, but now I get to worry about it happening somewhere we can't escape easily.) We will deplane and get through immigration and watch all the other bags come off the carousel, only to discover that ours was somehow jettisoned over the Atlantic. (This has never happened to me - though they've lost our buggy a couple times, they've always found it again - but every time, man. Every time I'm convinced that this is the one flight our most-important bag just didn't make.)

My frequent flyer,
chillin' out with a snack and a soundless movie
My kid, on the other hand? My kid owns the air. She's been flying every couple of months since she was eight weeks old. However she feels about the rest of the world, which often seems to be begging her to run around in it, she knows planes, and she knows that she has to sit still sometimes and wait patiently sometimes and stay buckled pretty much all the time. It doesn't seem to occur to her that things won't go her way. She takes things in stride in general, and she loves rising to occasions, which gives her pretty much the perfect personality for long-haul travel. Flight attendants love her, and by the end of the flight, so do the people sitting around us, whose flights she hasn't made any more uncomfortable than they already were.

That doesn't mean there aren't things we do to make the whole experience easier on ourselves. When flying with a toddler, my certainty that everything is going to go horribly wrong pays off: I let all that dread spur me to action.

Inspired by a blog post I'd discovered on Pinterest and memories of many, many childhood road trips, I inaugurated my toddler into the long and honorable tradition of the Car Bag - or, in her case, the Plane Bag - full of new toys and books to keep her busy. (I went ahead and bought new toys and books, because there were things I had meant to get for her anyway but hadn't, and because, honestly, shopping for them was a good bit of fun. I have also heard the advice to hide some toys/books from the existing collection in the weeks before the trip, so that they're new and exciting again by the time the kid sees them on the plane.)

The Plane Bag
I really wish I'd taken a Before picture, because my approach to this bag was, if I do say so myself, a stroke of genius. Not only did I pack it full of a variety of activities - books! crayons! stickers! rubber stamps! - but - get this - I wrapped them. I wrapped each of those little pod-shaped rubber stamps. I wrapped the tiny bead coaster. I wrapped the "That's Not My Duck!" book and I wrapped the crayons, in sets of three. I wrapped each of the Peppa Pig Fairytale mini-books, which you can just barely see poking out from behind the backpack in the photo. (I didn't wrap the stickers, because let's not get crazy.) And voila! I added another 3-5 minutes of enjoyment to each activity. The toddler loved each new toy, and was (uncharacteristically) careful enough with them that I spent a lot less time than I'd expecting rescuing crayons and tiny rubber stamps from the floor of the airplane.

Let's be honest, there's another way we made this trip easy on ourselves: we didn't go out of our way to police screen time. The toddler made this easier on us by not seeming to care if she could actually listen to cartoons, as long as she could see them. So it didn't matter that they don't make headphones for one-year-olds; she was perfectly happy to watch the pictures of Ice Age 2 play for her while she listened to the hum of activity around us. That got us through mealtime and a few random cranky periods when she got bored with books and stickers.

As you can see in the picture, she also has her very own seat. Yeah, we could keep her in our arms for another six months, technically. Thank goodness for expat package travel allowances, because if we'd tried that this time I think we'd have spent the entire flight walking up and down the aisles. I could not find a CE or FAA-approved car seat for sale in Ireland, so we went with the CARES Harness, which is designed to work with the airplane seat belt. We notified Aer Lingus that we were bringing it, and the flight attendants were expecting us and very supportive of our newfangled contraption.

For our next long-haul flight, I'm going to try to emulate my 18-month-old daughter's approach to happy flying. There's no reason to assume everything's going to go pear-shaped, or that it'd be the end of the world if they did. I've lived through a ton of travel problems; it's not like I have to do some kind of hypothetical disaster plan to prepare myself for them. I already know to hit the newsstand for a huge bottle of water, the most powerful Nurofen available, and a couple bags of trailmix. I already know not to travel without change for the vending machine. I already know to stick a change of clothes in my carry-on - not just for the toddler, but for myself. Theoretically, I should be able to prepare for emergencies without getting caught up in thoughts of how awful it'll be if they happen.

Next time I fly, I'm going to trust the airline to get me where I'm going without undue trauma. If said trauma occurs, I'm going to trust myself to handle it. And if everything goes well - as it does about 80% of the time - I'm going to kick back, relax, and enjoy the ride, toddler-style.

30 August 2013

Just Let Us Sleep: A plea/rant on behalf of redeye passengers


Well, this is... interesting.
(She didn't spend much time in the bassinet.)
Nearly four months until we go back to the States for Christmas, and the New York Times' Motherlode blog has me dreading the flights already.

The post itself is pretty mild; just a note that Singapore Air, Malaysia Airlines, and AirAsia have created child-free zones in their planes. (Some of the comments are brutal; I have to remind myself they're outnumbered.) It's just reminded me that I have to take the red-eye, and the way Aer Lingus runs the red-eye seems designed to make sure everyone on board gets the full jet-lag experience on their vacation or return to the Emerald Isle.

I don't know why it has to be this way.

First off, I should note that overall, we've had great experiences taking our baby daughter on Aer Lingus flights. They really do seem to do the best they can to make everyone comfortable: they group the parties with small children together (so at least everyone's sympathetic); they've given us extra seats on non-full flights; they're generous with bottle-warming and bottled water.

BUT. Butbutbutbutbut. They have no daytime flights from Boston to Dublin. No one has daytime flights from Boston to Dublin (and, no snark, the daytime flight from Boston to London is a consistently pleasant experience and I miss it terribly). Believe me, I would much rather not run the risk of my toddler having a sleep-deprived meltdown and ruining your chance at the airplane version of a good night's sleep. At least on a day flight, we all have the nighttime left to look forward to when it's over.

Unfortunately, Aer Lingus does not behave as though they think sleep on overnight flights is a priority to any of their passengers, not just the babies. They run their overnight flights to Dublin on exactly the same schedule as they run their daytime flights to Boston, so what was already going to be a short sleep - the whole flight's maybe seven hours, taxi to taxi - dwindles to a nap, if you're lucky. Whether you're travelling with a kid or not.

I don't know why it has to be this way.

I don't know why the red-eye isn't run as though it were happening, y'know, at night. When people sleep. I don't know why they keep the lights on for all but the middle two hours of the flight. I don't know why they give us a huge meal an hour into a short flight, when anyone with any knowledge of jet lag is fasting. I don't know why they run an active duty-free service after they've cleared dinner, keeping the hustle and bustle going for another hour. I don't know why they feel the need to make PA announcements throughout the flight. It's nighttime. In both time zones. I don't know why they're so committed to pretending otherwise.

It matters more to me because I have a kid to take care of - I used to just stick my earbuds in, maybe put on an eyemask, and get away from it all, and that's not an option these days. But I don't see any disadvantage to child-free passengers if the overnight flight is organised to promote sleep. They dim the overhead lights for take-off anyway; why don't they just leave them off? Anyone who needs light has a reading lamp above their seat. 

And while the flight we take does leave when people on the East Coast are starting to think about supper (I assume to accommodate the business travellers, for whom landing at 5:25 a.m. gives at least a chance of a shower before they report to work), that doesn't mean we need a full-on chicken-or-beef meal service. If anything, a high-protein meal will make it harder to sleep when the lights finally do go off. The airline currently gives us a full meal at the beginning and a snack at the end of the flight; would it be so hard to reverse that? Let people who need to eat when the flight takes off request a sandwich, and then serve more substantial fare before landing, when we're all looking forward to a full day of trying to keep ourselves awake.

Nowadays we buy her her own seat.
She still sleeps in our arms (or not at all), but
at least we can keep the diaper bag in arms' reach.
I understand that I'm only seeing one side of the picture here. I'm sure there are all kinds of regulations and behind-the-scenes issues that make it impractical or impossible to just leave the lights off and the environment calm and quiet from take-off to, if not landing, at least breakfast. But from my limited angle of vision, so much of what keeps the lights on and the aisles busy seems unnecessary. Dinner, if you must, but a separate drinks service before and coffee service after? Really? (I mean, coffee service? It's the middle of the night, for cryin' out loud.) A PA announcement about duty-free shopping, and one more cart going up and down the aisles, well after everyone's calmed down from dinner? Why, for the love of god, why?

On our last trip, flight attendants kept stopping by our row to marvel at our one-year-old's cheerfulness. "Wow, she's still awake!" they kept commenting, as the flight moved east and the hours pushed on towards morning. Well, yes, I wanted to answer. The lights are on full and you keep making loud announcements, walking back and forth, and stopping by to ask us things. Wouldn't that keep you up?

22 July 2013

July Book Reviews

Hi Gang! I had so much fun writing the book recommendations for my last post I decided to make it a regular feature. Here's what I've read since June 3, in no particular order:

Novels:
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud  A single woman falls in love with a family. I've been at a loss for what to say about this one. I read it because I loved Messud's The Emperor's Children, about young intelligentsia in New York around 2001 - it was so cool to read a period novel about a period I remembered vividly! - and this is quite different. I was definitely engrossed, mostly in a desperate longing for the narrator to listen, even briefly, to the people who loved her and didn't want her to get hurt.

Beauty Queens, Libba Bray  "A plane full of beauty queens crashes on a desert island. Go." I laughed. Then I cried a little. Then I laughed some more. I really didn't want it to be over and I want to buy a copy for every teen girl I know (and save one for my daughter, when she's a teenager). Perfect summer beach/poolside reading.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann  Interlinked stories surrounding Pierre Petit's walk between the Twin Towers in 1973. The first section takes place in my Dublin neighborhood! And the rest of the book captures New York so well I forgot I wasn't alive to be there in the early 70s.

Non-fiction:
Be Awesome, Hadley Freeman  Essays by my favourite Guardian columnist. Reads like a blog in book form, and that's not a bad thing. Perfect bedtime book: each essay is long enough to be interesting but not so long that you have to keep yourself awake to get to the end, and you won't find yourself accidentally finishing the whole book at 2:30 a.m. when you meant to just read a few pages.

Homeward Bound, Emily Matchar  The thesis: supported by blogs and articles promoting a self-sufficient lifestyle and pooh-poohing the possibility of work-life balance, families of my class and race are tending to turn inward, isolating themselves from the larger world (and from society-wide solutions to their problems). Made me angry, made me sad. Counter-productively, made me want to spend all day surfing homemaker blogs and Pinterest. (Further thoughts on these issues will be a longer blog post, later.)

The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin  Part memoir, part instruction manual, wherein a New York writer decides to figure out how to be happier (both in recognition of her privilege and because she believes being happy will make it easier to be the kind of good person she wants to be). The first few chapters were inspiring as hell. While I did not start my own Happiness Project per se, I did add several very important items to my to-do list. By the end of the book I felt she was really reaching in order to make the project last for a whole year, and I didn't finish the last chapter. But that was okay - I got what I needed out of it. Recommended for anyone feeling a bit stuck and not sure what to change to get un-stuck.

How about you - read anything good lately?

03 June 2013

My PeNoReMos, or: How I Learned to Read while Parenting a Baby

I owe NaNoWriMo an apology.

Two autumns ago, I wrote a thousand words or so poo-pooing the entire idea, mostly because a detailed perusal of nanowrimo.org failed to turn up any editing advice. It was all, "you go, writer! write that novel! let it be as bad as it needs to be!" without any "and then here's the year's worth of work you'll need to do to clean it up."

And then, last November, I signed up. I had a four-month-old daughter and a middle-grade novel I'd outlined in the two weeks between her due date and when she was actually born, and writing 1,600-odd words a day during naptime seemed like a good way to jump back into writing daily. (I was wrong, but more on that later.) To my surprise, long past November I kept getting NaNoWriMo e-mails full of support for next steps: revising; finding/creating a critique group; querying; self-publishing if you're up for that. So, I was totally wrong that NaNoWriMo treats writing a novel as though the first draft were all. It turns out they do provide resources for getting from first draft to finished book. Oops.

NaNoWriMo would have even been fun, if I'd actually managed to write--at all--during that month. Turns out just when you're trying to get your four-month-old to nap in her own cot is not the best time to plan on writing two-three hours a day. Who knew?

But all was not lost. Instead of National Novel Writing Month, I instituted a new goal just for myself: my Personal Novel Reading Month. Like many a new parent, I had gotten into a bad internet habit. Since I didn't have the willpower or discipline or energy to get back to writing just yet, I decided I could at least make sure I read something besides blog posts and facebook updates. And so I gave myself a strict limit on naptime web-surfing, and spent the rest of my free time reading books.

Clearly, we passed on the
reading gene.
It's a thing I did before I was a mom. Since we moved to Dublin when our daughter was six weeks old, I've been building a whole new life from scratch, rather than incorporating parenthood into the life I already had. At times it's felt like the Me I'd gotten to know and love over 38 years had been obliterated by the changes in my life since my daughter was born. I desperately wanted some way of reclaiming that old self, and felt as though the Irish Sea was between me and all of my options: I wanted to grab a drink with an old friend, but they were all in London or New York; I was ready to get back to my former volunteer work, at least in a limited way, but the school where I volunteered is in London; I would have loved to go to choir practice and sing the Bach St John Passion this spring, but I always did that with the St Paul Cathedral Chorus - in London.

In part because I had a new baby, finding new friends, work, and hobbies in my new home was a much bigger job than I had the energy for (see my previous post). It didn't help that, as I found out last week, I've been severely anaemic for pretty much all of 2013. Now that I'm taking iron supplements I feel like I can conquer the world, or at least stay awake past nine at night; but from January through May just getting to the end of the day felt like a Herculean accomplishment.

Reading, though. Reading I could do. Thanks to the iPhone, whatever book I was reading would fit in my pocket and could be pulled out and read as soon as the baby's eyes drifted closed, especially during that three-month stretch when she was almost always sick and could only sleep comfortably in someone's arms. My daughter's long-running head cold had me reading three, even four hours a day, and now that she's better I'm in the habit and still manage at least an hour over the course of the day.

The best part: for the first time in years, I feel like I'm reading purely for enjoyment. Not with enjoyment as a by-product of keeping up with what's current in my field, or picking books to assign, or analysing the writer's craft. I'm reading what I want to, because I want to, and those other things are the side benefits.

So, what have I been reading in my copious spare time? So glad you asked!

(The Best of the) Books I've Read in the last Six Months, In No Particular Order:

Narrative Nonfiction
Okay, so I'm not reading exclusively novels.

Fraud and Half Empty by David Rakoff. Man, I wish I'd known about this essayist before he died - the memorial episode on This American Life is a hell of a way to learn about work I should have been reading all along. Rakoff had an interesting life, in a low-key sort of way - he once played Freud in a department store Christmas window display - and makes it seem... not relatable, but as though it's beside the point whether you relate to it or not. He is going to write beautiful sentences, paragraphs, pages, and you're going to feel your neurons rearrange themselves as you read them. Don't take my word for it: go read "Isn't it Romantic?" from Half Empty, and see if you can ever again listen to the opening song from Rent without feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

A Parisian martini!
Paris, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down by Rosencrans Baldwin. An expat memoir! I read this on vacation in France and it was a very effective inoculation against the "why can't we get posted here?" wistfulness I usually get on visits to Paris. Frankly, I want to read his wife's memoir. While Baldwin was working at a glamorous advertising agency on assignments that sent him to, say, villas in Bermuda to interview Sean Connery, his wife was writing away in an un-airconditioned apartment with construction on three, then four, then all six sides. And she couldn't get a job to get out of the house because of her dependent visa, and they couldn't afford to move because they were living on one income. At least Baldwin is sensitive enough to her predicament that this is the major detail I remember from the book.

Novels! For the Young (but old folks should read them, too)

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr. Oh, how I wish this book had been there for me when I was a teenager. Such a familiar problem (the challenge of being true to both your art and your life) in such a rarified world (not only can the family in the book fly the best piano teachers over from Russia and get them US citizenship, they also have a full-time private cook). I got so worried about the title character I had to put the book down at several points and take some deep breaths, and I practically cheered at the very-satisfying ending. Zarr also includes a playlist at the end of the book, and any day now I'm going to go through iTunes and re-create it.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I had to read this in small chunks. Not because the baby interrupted, but because I needed to absorb all the wonderfulness a bit at a time - and since I was pretty sure the ending wasn't going to be unambiguously happy, I didn't want to get there too fast. I wonder if I would have had the guts to be friends with Eleanor or Park if I had been in high school with them. I also wonder when Rowell's next book is coming out, and how extensive a back catalogue I have to enjoy until then.

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson. A family goes back to their old lakeside vacation house for one last summer. Someday, you may read this book. You may find yourself maybe, say, 50 pages from finishing it as you are on your way to run errands, which will also involve having lunch out, by yourself. You may think to yourself, "I will bring this book with me and finish it over lunch." Do not do this. Unless you are comfortable with waiters seating people far away from you and giving you a wide berth while you hold your hand over your mouth and choke back sobs.

The Diviners by Libba Bray. This is so not my kind of book. Look at those other three: down-to-earth novels set in the real world, about teenagers facing heartbreaking choices. Not a whiff of the paranormal. I downloaded this one because it was Halloween and I needed to start my PeNoReMo somewhere, and for some reason I thought that meant I should read something scary. And oh, it is. Ouija Boards, and scholars of the supernatural! Would-be flappers! Demonic con men! Really gruesome murders! And a race against a heavily-portentous comet! All things I usually avoid in my reading; all things that Bray's writing, plotting and pacing made thoroughly enjoyable in this one. And now I can't wait for the next in the series.

Novels! For the Old (but young folks might enjoy; who knows? My favorite book when I was fifteen was The Prince of Tides.)

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. You thought I was going to recommend The Interestings, didn't you? Like everybody else? Fooled you! Actually, I started to, but then I realized I wouldn't tell you anything you haven't already read. Instead, I'm going to divert your attention to a 2008 novel by the same author, about a group of women trying to figure out what to do with their lives now that the kids they left the workforce to raise are turning ten. I was almost halfway through the book before I figured out what the actual plot (as opposed to the situation) was - and I didn't care. I'm a sucker for a beautiful, honest moment, especially a rueful one, and this novel is full of them. It is also, once I realized what was actually happening, really beautifully structured. I'm also a sucker for craft. (Be warned that if you have any musical ear at all, you will find yourself with the phrase "Rise, sorrow, 'neath the saffron sister tree" going through your head at odd moments.)

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I hadn't heard of this book - an epistolary novel about gossip and intrigue among the parents and administrators at an elite Seattle school - until it started showing up on Best of 2012 lists. Those lists were right. I didn't see a single element of this book coming, but they all made perfect sense once they showed up. Plus, the prose is snappy and crisp and the reading experience just flat-out enjoyable.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? What should I read next (I ask, as if my to-be-read pile wasn't in serious danger of swamping my nightstand)?

16 May 2013

The Expat Survival Kit III: One Year On

Hi Everybody!

Most of you are here, reading this, because you know me. Some of you are here because you've Googled "expat survival kit", or some variation thereof. This post is for all of you. (If you're here because you're looking for pictures of Egypt, that post is here.)

When last we met, I'd written two posts full of everything I've learned about moving to a new place, particularly a foreign country, without a job or any friends outside of your immediate family. Then I had a baby(!!!), moved from London to Dublin, and went into blog silence for... a year. Sorry about that. See above re: baby.

So. Now that I've been in Dublin for almost a year, how'm I doing? Am I taking my own advice? Is it working?

Well, I'll say this, I'm really glad I wrote that post in April last year. I still believe, intellectually, that it's much better in the long run to dig in and make yourself at home in the new place. But in my privileged position of having lived in the new place until it was no longer new, I'd forgotten what that first bit was really like, and how often it would be tempting to just put my head down and kill time until the next move. And I was unbelievably naive, in that I assumed having a baby would make feeling at home in a new place easier. (All you other parents can take a break to laugh hysterically now. I know, you're laughing with me, not at me.) I have needed my own pep talk from time to time.

Anyway.

Efforts aimed at feeling at home in Dublin:

I. The Irish Classes
The Irish accent differs from the American accent very differently than the British accent does. British English and American English are the same language, it's just they've evolved some differences in the last 300 years. Irish English, on the other hand, is English translated from Irish. So I figured the place to start in getting acclimated to Ireland, was to learn why people talk the way they do.

This was a ton of fun. I made sure Gino could come home by six every Wednesday night, and took myself off to the Conradh na Gaeilge in Dublin 2 for their Beginners Irish Class. I didn't learn much Irish, unfortunately: when I tried to speak it with a Dubliner, the response was invariably, "oh, gosh, I haven't thought about that since school, I've forgotten everything" (and when we went to the West, where Irish is still spoken as a first language, everyone I interacted with was from Poland). But I did learn enough to say "hello" and "thank you" and "it's raining" and "I have one daughter" and "a pint of Guinness, please" and about sixteen variations on "good-bye." And I gained at least glancing familiarity with the way language works around here, which means I'm less likely to need to do mental gymnastics to work out what the taxi driver has just said to me.

Of course, the best part was the tea and biscuit (tae agus briosca) break. The beginners were allowed to speak English in the otherwise Irish-only bar under the classroom building, so we actually got a chance to chat - a very important feature in the Class You Take as a New Expat. I even made a friend! We went out for a drink after class, and everything! Then she moved back to New York the week after the class ended. Oops.

I didn't sign up for the next term of classes, and I'm starting to think this was a mistake. It's not that I need to learn Irish in order to live here (and one two-hour class a week is not a good way to learn a language from scratch, anyway), but it was really the only thing I did that wasn't about being a mother. Completely aside from the tea and biscuits, it was really nice to have two or three hours a week when the thing I had in common with everybody was "we're all learning something new," and not "we all have babies at home."

II. The Gym
I finally found a gym with childcare! It's a half-hour walk away (I'll be honest, I call a taxi to get there about 2/3 of the time - I really need to learn how to drive on the left. And get a car), but I can sign my baby up in advance for up to two hours at a time, which is just exactly enough time to do both cardio and weights and take a shower after! The club has a cafe, as well - once when I'd pulled a muscle and knew working out would be counter-productive, I dropped my daughter in the creche, went to the cafe, and added 1000 words to the novel I'm (very slowly) writing.

III. The Expat Group
This... didn't happen. I know, I know, I said it was so important and then I didn't do it. I looked them up and the meetings were way out in a different part of the suburbs than I live in (and so very hard to get to without a car), and I didn't have childcare for the meeting times, so I just didn't join. However! In a fit of desperation I've joined meetup.com, and they have their own expat group there, and one of these days I will bite the bullet and join it. And maybe the "Dublin Writers" and "Dublin Book Club" groups, while I'm at it.

IV. The Playgroup
I'm still doing this, actually. My daughter, almost eleven months old, has moved from the "Babies" class to the "Wobblers" class, which is much smaller because most of the other moms from Babies have gone back to work by now. (Is "Wobblers" - the stage between "Babies" and "Toddlers" - a thing where you live? I'd never heard it before I moved to Ireland, but then, I'd never been a parent before I moved to Ireland, either.) It's not all that exciting - some singing songs, some playing with bubbles, some puppets. It's just really nice, not only to go play with other kids and moms, but to have an hour every week when someone else is in charge. And almost every time, at least a couple people will be up for going out to lunch after. It's almost like having a social life! Of course, it's a social life where all attempts at conversation have to be balanced with the need to keep our kids from hitting each other with their toy phones, but still. I've become close to a couple of women in particular from the class - those of us who didn't go back to work rather banded together - and I hope someday we'll get to go out, child-free, for that glass of wine we all admit to wanting when we're ordering coffees and Diet Cokes to go with our bagel sandwiches.

Which brings me to...

The Snag

There was one big thing I didn't account for when we moved to Dublin: that when you have a baby at the same time that you move to a new place, the only people anyone wants to set you up with are other new moms. There's no "oh, she sings too, she'll know which choirs you might be interested in" or "you're both teachers, you can talk shop." Anytime anyone gives you someone else's number, it's because "she has a baby your baby's age!"

At first, I thought this was just going to be boring, because we'd have to have the "baby pooping/sleeping/feeding" discussion over and over. And to an extent that's been true, though it turns out that (a) that conversation's a lot more interesting when it's about your baby's poop/sleep/food and (b) usually in the process of those conversations you actually learn a good bit about other things you have in common with another mum. But there's a much bigger issue I hadn't anticipated.

New mothers make terrible friends. I include myself in this. I cannot be counted on: if I say I'm going to be somewhere at a certain time, that guarantee comes with fine print saying "assuming my child doesn't get sick or decide to adopt a radically new nap schedule just for today or have a massive nappy blow-out as I'm walking out the door." I am more than happy to listen to what's going on with someone else, but it's hard to find a time when that conversation won't be interrupted by a baby needing me and/or I'm not so exhausted that I'll have trouble keeping track of the conversation. And if you have a problem, I have nothing to offer but sympathy. I can't promise to do any favors to make your life easier. I can't even reliably promise to show up in an appointed place at an appointed time to listen to you tell me about your life.

So to start with, I'm in a poor position to make new friendships: I'm a complete flake, have been for months, and can only hope that some bright future day will see the return of my brain and some measure of control over my day. And then it turns out that everyone with whom I might make friends is in exactly the same boat. To quote one of my mom friends, "I just looked at my text history for the last two months and realized that my entire social life these days consists of making plans and then cancelling them."

We all like each other. In a perfect world, we'd love to spend time together. We're just so damn tired, and so damn many things can go pear-shaped in between when we make our well-intentioned plans and when it's actually time to show up at the park. And that makes it almost impossible to get to know anyone well enough to count on her when you really need a close friend.

The Apology

To those of you who've been googling Expat Survival Kit: I'm sorry. I left out one big thing in my previous posts about successful expatriating, and it really matters.

All that stuff you have to do, to live in your new place rather than just get by: you have to keep doing it. Even when it's frustrating and discouraging and just plain old hard. You can't just do the one thing once and it'll all work out; you have to allow for false starts and dead ends and just the fact that it takes time to get to know people well. And that sucks.

But I still have to believe that it's worth it. If I found out we were leaving Dublin next week, I don't think I'd be happy. I think I'd feel like I missed out. Because I haven't really lived in Dublin the last ten months; I've just resided here. And I'd like to live here. I'd like to have lived here, after we move away. I'd like to have stories about more than just the weather and that one Irish class I took. I'd like to have people to visit when we came back. I'd like to have made an impact in the community where I've spent so much time.

Last month I took my daughter for a very short trip back to London, where she was born. We had a wonderful time and it was depressing as hell, because it drew my attention to everything I try to forget I miss. All the way back through Dublin in the taxi, I just kept wanting to turn around and go home. And then we pulled up in front of our house and my daughter's face absolutely lit up with relief - because of course, as she knows and I've been denying, our house in Dublin is home.

I've done it before, and I know I can make Dublin into a home for myself, as well as my daughter. And you, my dear googler: I know you can, too.


Slán agus beannacht.


So, that's that. Next up in blogging, Book Reviews! or: How I Learned to Read Despite Having a Baby. Next month, I hope? Sometime this summer, anyway.

10 May 2012

Expat Survival Kit II: The Toolbox

In my last post I gave a lot of general principles about moving to a new place, especially abroad, and how important it is to build a life when you get there rather than just sticking it out until you move on--but I gave very little information about how to do that. So, for my Inner New Expat, who read that post and wept, "but how? How do I make friends, and find the grocery store that carries Grape Nuts at less-than-extortionate prices, and figure out how to spend the hours I used to be at work?", I present:

The Expat Toolbox

The following are the actual items you will find in your Expat Survival Kit. Some of them are actual, and you can find/buy them. Some of them are metaphorical, and that's the hard part--you'll have to figure out how to create those for yourself.

(Note: most of these are geared toward the person who's not moving for his/her own job. If you move with a job in your own place, several of these issues--how to meet people; where to get advice; how to spend your days--will take care of themselves. I assume. I've only ever been in the position of moving sans day job.)

Before You Go:

I.  Guidebooks
You might as well start with the fun stuff. Pretend you're going on vacation, only this time you don't have to worry about "Three Day Itineraries" or "Top Ten Must Do"s because you'll be able to go see/do whatever cool stuff, whenever you want. Bask in this idea for a while.

II. Novels/Memoirs
While you're picking up your guidebooks, spend some time in the bookstore or library collecting books set in your destination. Maybe it's just me, but I find reading narrative gets me into the spirit of a place better than even the best guidebook.

Of course, it helps that both places I've prepared to move to have been literary powerhouses. (Though the downside of Dublin is that, historically, her writers have written mostly about how miserable it is there and how much they or their characters want to leave. Thank heaven for Roddy Doyle--and if anyone knows any books that present Dublin as a grand place to live, please pass 'em on.)

IIa. Movies
See II. Same principle, but even better, because you get to see the place!

Once You've Arrived:

III. Comfort Food from Home
Food is important. Eating doesn't just fuel the body; it gives the soul a sense of security. You'll have a lot of fun trying out local foods in your new home, but when you're at the end of your rope--and you will get there--you'll want that familiar-from-childhood comfort food you used to take for granted at home.

This one's tough, because you probably won't know what you'll miss most until you get there, can't find it, and miss it. This is where the next item comes in handy:

IV. A Visit from Your Friend from Home
This has to be scheduled very carefully--far enough from the date of your move that you can accommodate a guest, but close enough that the two of you will have the fun of exploring together. Not only is it incredibly reassuring to move knowing that in just a few weeks you will see a familiar face, but having a friend coming also means you have someone to bring you whatever you've realized you can't live without, and can't get in your new place.

V. Comfort Food from Your New Home
Your grocery store can be your friend as well as your biggest source of frustration. Take a break from trying to find the foods you're used to, and find the foods you're really going to miss when you move away from this new place. For me, it's sharp cheddar and tomato chutney on whole wheat; and ready-meal curries; and Turkish delight; and bite-sized chocolate rolls.

I once overheard a bunch of American college students getting very depressed in Sainsbury's because they couldn't find Hershey Kisses. I took pity and told them where to get them (the gourmet store near their dorm, of all places), but I still wish I'd told them the much, much more important secret: forget Hershey's anything and grab a selection of 1/2kg Cadbury bars. What's the point of your year abroad if you don't go back telling people, "oh, I got spoiled by real chocolate in Europe--American chocolate just tastes so bland in comparison"? (Even though calling Cadbury "real chocolate" is stretching the truth--it's still better than anything you can get at a grocery store in the States.)

VI. Club Memberships: if you're on a really good expat package, your/your spouse's company might even pay for these!

VIa. The Gym
Because exercise is good for you, and you suddenly have time for it. Also because endorphins can be your new best friends, until you meet some human best friends. And, not least, because finding your new favorite foods and building your new social life is going to involve consuming a lot more calories than you're used to.

VIb. The Expat Club
The Expat Wife is such an institution that, in certain cities, a whole infrastructure has sprung up to support her. You can start googling before you leave: "American Women's Club" [city]; "International Women's Club" [city]; "expat support" [city]. This is what your first friends in your new home are doing.
Back-to-school kits assembled by volunteers--including me!
--for students at a local primary school
This was probably my least-favorite part of moving to London. I felt like I kept having the same conversation over and over, and it just got less and less interesting. But! Going to club meetings was an excuse to wear nice clothes every couple of weeks (otherwise I could've just lived in whatever I wore to the gym in the morning); club meetings and activities gave those early, endless days some structure; other members of those groups had some great advice on living in London (it's thanks to the Kensington and Chelsea Women's Club that I could tell the college students where to get Hershey Kisses); and--oh yeah--I met some of my closest friends. So while I'm not looking forward to renewing the round of "so, have you figured out how to work your washing machine?" chat in Dublin, I know this is an important step in figuring out how to feel at home in a place, including building real relationships with wonderful people.

VIc. The Interest/Hobby/Service Group/Class
While going to museums and having long lunches with your new friends can be fun for a while, every one of my American-in-London friends eventually discovered that we needed to find a way to invest our time, instead of just spending it. Especially if you move for someone else's job, without one of your own, you will probably discover that one of the aspects of your old life that you most need to replicate in your new one, is a sense of purpose.

In some ways, this can be the hardest part of integrating into your new community. Expat clubs are, by definition, very welcoming to newcomers; it can take longer to prove yourself in an established group of locals. I sang with my choir for almost two years before I started to feel like one of the gang, and during rehearsals for my second Messiah performance last winter, I found out my fellow sopranos refer to me as "the American lady" (and my Canadian friend as "the other American lady").

Being "the American lady" instead of one of a largely American group makes me feel more at home in London. This has been increasingly true as I've joined more and more non-expat-focused activities: my volunteer group is largely American, but through them I spend a few hours a week working with local kids and teachers; in SCBWI, the important thing is that I write for teens. I'll always be "the American," but it's important to keep putting myself in situations where what I'm good at--or, in the case of the yoga and cooking classes I've taken, what I'm learning--is vastly more important than where I came from.

VII. Slack
This is probably the most important tool in your Expat Survival Kit. Wherever you're moving, under whatever circumstances, you're going to need as much of this as you can muster. The various situations in which giving yourself slack will come in handy could be their own (very long) post, but here are what I think are the two most important:

You're not from here. No matter how much advance prep you do, how much you embrace local culture, you will never have grown up in this place. No matter how many similarities you can find between the place you've left and the place you've arrived, there are going to be big, important differences, and they're going to trip you up and make you feel like an idiot. All you can do is keep giving yourself permission to just be an idiot when necessary. It sucks to learn the rules by breaking them, but the important thing is that you're learning the rules. Every dumb mistake you make gets you closer to the day when things that seem so weird now, become second nature.

Your local support system is weak. You're under an enormous amount of stress and the people who usually help you through stressful times are several time zones away. Many of your usual coping mechanisms aren't available in the new place, and you haven't figured out what will replace them yet. This is going to break through in some strange and potentially embarrassing ways. Forgive yourself for the occasional breakdown--no one you know can see you sobbing in the grocery store, anyway.

As the most important weapon in your arsenal, slack comes with a pretty major caveat: if time passes and you find yourself stuck in a helpless, hopeless, negative rut, get help. Cities with expat communities have therapists who specialize in emotional issues related to relocation: call one (or two, or a few). If you're in a place without that kind of expat support, try out a few local therapists, or see if you can set up phone/Skype sessions with someone in a more cosmopolitan location. If you're truly in the middle of nowhere, talk to the organization who sent you there about ways others have dealt with the situation. Don't just resign yourself to hating your situation: the whole point of all this is building a happy life despite the challenges of living abroad, not just enduring the various ways living abroad can suck.

Of course, this advice is all based on me and my one (so far) experience with moving internationally. I'm sure I've left out some piece of advice that's been a lifesaver for someone else. So, expat friends and relatives (and friends and relatives of friends and relatives), what have I missed? What's the most important advice you'd give to someone on the brink of an inter-cultural move?

27 April 2012

The Expat Survival Kit


London icons, a block and a half from our flat.
And then the day finally comes. ... Although there have been moments of wondering if it will ever happen, given enough time and a genuine willingness to adapt, we will once again become part of the permanent community. ... We have a sense of intimacy, a feeling that our presence matters to this group.  We feel secure.  Time again feels present and permanent as we focus on the here and now rather than hoping for the future or constantly reminiscing about the past."
David C. Pollock
Ruth E. Van Reken 

When I first read the above paragraph last weekend, I immediately commented to Gino, "and then it'll be time to move again."

I speak from experience.  The book I quoted is right: it's taken a lot of effort (and a lot of thinking it would never happen), but the last eighteen months or so London has truly felt like home.  I have meaningful work I love, and Gino and I have built a circle of smart, interesting, caring people as friends.  We have our favorite restaurants and things to do on a free weekend afternoon, and we've worn the "touristy must-do in London" list down to a nub.  We know the relative advantages of Sainsbury vs Waitrose and that you can buy pretty much anything you can ever imagine needing at Peter Jones.  We have become, as the book puts it in another context, competent.  We're good at London, good at being Americans in London.

And next week we'll be moving into corporate housing for a stretch, pending a move to Ireland later on this summer.

I shouldn't have read Third Culture Kids so hard on the heels of Chris Pavone's The Expats, which I downloaded to read on a driving holiday around France.  I've read a lot of books about expat life over  my life, and especially the past four years, and The Expats was the first one that had me nodding along: yep, been there, done that.

The novel made me want to create a survival pack for new expats, especially the new expats brought overseas by a spouse's career.  (The term of art is "trailing spouse."  If you think that alone isn't a blow to the ego of a competent, independent, previously self-supporting adult, you would be wrong.)  It would include a copy of The Expats, because one of the amazing things about moving to a new country is the sheer amount of free time you have to get through when you get there, and Pavone's novel could kill some of that very enjoyably, while giving you a glimpse of what you're in for.  The survival pack would include a bulk package of your favorite treats from back home, a sampler of delicacies native to your new home, and a list of the instructions I wanted to give the book's protagonist:  find some kind of work, even if it doesn't pay.  Take a class in something, anything, you're remotely interested in, or pick a hobby and find a way to pursue it in a group setting.  (And don't worry about being a cliche.  Cliches are often based in truth.)   To the extent that this is in your control, make a few friends who are native to your new home, or have lived there long-term.  Get together with the other parents at your kids' school and form a baby-sitting co-op so you can have the occasional non-parental evening, even when your husband's traveling.  Don't just get through the days--invest them in building some kind of life.  

I started to feel downright cocky about the move to Ireland: I've done this before.  I've got this changing-countries thing down.  This'll be a lark.

And then Third Culture Kids knocked me off my high horse.  No Expat Survival Kit would be complete without a copy of this book.  Seriously, even if you have no kids and no plan to have them--that just means you can skip the "schooling options" bit.  You should still read most of the book, which has tons to say about the process of relocating into a new culture, and repatriating back.  It was one of those books that told me all kinds of things I didn't realize I knew.

Holy cow.  The book stressed me out in advance.  It reminded me of everything I'd forgotten about exactly how hard it is to switch cities, let alone countries.  How you have to prove yourself all over again to a whole new group of people.  How you have to figure out where to get American products, because someday you will find yourself insanely homesick and only Betty Crocker Devil's Food Cake will make you feel better.  How you have to figure out where to get everything and how many things you didn't realize you can't live without until you decided to leave them behind.  How you have to find some way of passing the time while you slowly accumulate replacements for all the bits of your life you took for granted in the old place: Your work.  Your hobbies.  Your gym.  Your favorite restaurant that actually delivers.  Your friends.

At the same time, it made me feel validated.  All the emotions I experienced in the move to London, even the really embarrassingly immature and provincial ones, are chronicled and catalogued and pronounced perfectly normal.  And who doesn't love to have their more shameful moments--that time you burst into tears in the grocery store because you didn't recognize a single brand of peanut butter, say, or the week you bought something new every single day just so that somehow, something would be different at the end of the day than it was at the beginning--pronounced perfectly normal?

Whisky tasting at the Jameson Distillery.
Dublin will have its compensations.
But it did remind me that those steps I recommended above are necessary and the rewards of going through them really are great--but oh, they're hard.  And there's no getting away from it: the reason you know you need all that stuff, the friends and the gym and the work, is that you already had it, back where you came from.  And no one is going to hand any of it to you in this new place--you have to go out and get it all again.

Everyone I've talked to about this has noted the wave of homesickness that hits around the one-year mark in a new place.  The new glow has worn off and you're just integrated enough into the new community to know how integrated you're not.  When I was about at that point, I had tea with a dear friend who was about a year ahead of me on the expat cycle, and I admitted that I was tempted to give up on making a life and just go into endurance mode until someone told me it was time to leave London.  Since someone was going to tell me to go away eventually, what was the point of making London into somewhere I wanted to live?

My friend listened patiently, and pointed out: "if you're as heartbroken to leave London as you were to leave New York, that's not necessarily a bad thing."  And surprise surprise, she was right.  The grief at leaving London, the conviction that Dublin can't possibly be as good... I wouldn't be feeling any of that if I hadn't done a pretty damn good job of making myself at home here.  And four years ago, I didn't think that was possible, either.

About halfway through The Expats, Pavone describes guests at a Christmas party in Luxembourg:
This party was dominated by the sizable contingent who'd circled around themselves as Americans, exclusionary, flag-pin wearing.  Behaving as if they hadn't chosen to live in Europe, but had been moved against their wills, and were putting up a brave resistance.  Freedom fighters.
I've definitely met those people, and as I said, I understand the temptation.  Third Culture Kids notes that one response to moving into a new culture, recognizing that you'll always be an outsider, is to broadcast your difference and cling even more closely to the culture you know and understand.  When I first moved to London, I met several women who played a lot of bridge and went on a lot of day trips and, from the way they talked about living here, generally just tried  to endure the time before they could go home and back to real life.

Having had periods of living that way, and periods of throwing myself at London until it let me in, I can tell you: in the long run it's a lot easier to make yourself at home in the new place, than to grit your teeth and endure being away from home for years at a time.

And it's so totally worth it.  It's not exactly easy to rebuild your life every few years, and it really sucks to say good-bye to what you've built.  But you have to keep reminding yourself: this is your life.  These two or three or ten or twenty years you're spending abroad, you don't ever get these back.  Home is a long way away, in both time and space. Since you have to be here, you might as well put in the effort through the initial rebuilding process (and deal with the eventual, inevitable grief).  Then you get at least a couple years where things are easy again, and you get to go home with years' worth of amazing memories and stories and friends from all over the world.